Tony Mantuano of Bar Toma
Few tears fell when Bistro 110 closed in August. Levy Restaurants had crafted it in 1987 as a Planet Paris for the endless crush of open-walleted Mag Mile shoppers who didn’t seem too interested in whether it was authentic or not. Tony Mantuano, who wrote Bistro 110’s original menu, spent the fall rebuilding the space as the Italian bar and pizzeria he has wanted to open for nearly 30 years, and in doing so, he and his partners gave 110 East Pearson Street more than a shot in the arm. They gave it a heart transplant.
Bar Toma is the definition of the right idea at the right time in the right place. An Italian concept with dozens of points of entry just a credit card’s throw from Michigan Avenue? Brilliant. It wouldn’t work, though, without the sensibility of Mantuano (Spiaggia, Terzo Piano, The Purple Pig), a spot-on restaurateur who understands how Italians eat and drink and knows how to synthesize it for the rest of us. “In any Italian city, there is a place where locals gather at various times during the day,” says Mantuano. “That’s what Bar Toma will be.”
If Mantuano’s vision is any indication, here’s how Italians eat: They wander in early for a cappuccino and a ricotta-filled cornetto (similar to a croissant but denser and less buttery), which they ingest while standing. The more adventurous drink hot chocolate of 70 percent cacao so rich that they go home and nap until lunch, at which point they return for fresh mozzarella and Roman-style blue potato chips fried in olive oil. For dinner, they might split a few rosticcini di Abruzzo (precious little gas-grilled skewers), a pizza bianco, and a bottle of rosy nebbiolo. Maybe have a Negroni. Definitely gelato.
Bar Toma’s bustling environs nail that exuberance. People mill from station to station—here a pizza bar, there a mozzarella bar, over there a bar bar. The vibe reminds me of Osteria Via Stato and Quartino, two restaurants I confuse with each other so often that I routinely avoid both. Mantuano’s affordable menu better captures Italy’s irresistible simplicity, and it does so with nary a strand of pasta. Instead you get terrific rosticcino di manzo—grilled marinated beef soaked through with Acetaia San Giacomo balsamico—and unlikely treasures such as roasty charred carrots with Capriole goat cheese and almonds.
The wet art of mozzarella is not something for which Americans have much patience, but I’m glad no one told Bar Toma. The milky fior di latte and the creamy mozzarella di bufala are both simple wonders with just salt, pepper, and oil.
And sliding from the wood-burning oven are those gorgeous pizzas, which Mantuano—usually pretty modest—claimed would be Chicago’s best. They are pretty good, thanks to an improbable crust that manages to be both crisp and puffy (something to do with the 48-hour fermentation process). I loved the sweet Merguez pizza with Pinn-Oak Ridge Farm lamb sausage, tomatoes, olives, and manchego. The pizza salads are fun, if awkward, especially the Rucola, wherein the wondrous crust is an inadequate plate for a mountain of lemon-spritzed arugula, goat cheese, and pistachios.
From a rotating roster of house-made gelati, the rice-pudding version is smooth and cinnamony. But it’s nothing compared with BT’s best dessert, the Venice-inspired mammalucci, a small brioche rolled in bread crumbs, deep-fried, and served with a lemon-curd marmalade.
The wine on tap is nothing special, and an all-Italian wine list is well curated but small. The biggest issues, though, are execution (my seared toma cheese had hardened into a rubbery disk) and service (which was uninformed and strangely paternalistic early on). Things can only get better. Unless they get worse. The restaurant’s popularity and reservations policy (six-plus only) seem like a bad combination, but if Bar Toma turns out to be all things to all people, then I suppose I’ll have to learn to share it with all people.
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Photograph: Jeff Kauck
Vera’s paella with rabbit thigh, duck confit, duck chorizo, and pickled chilies
Vera loves to push the ham and sherry, especially together, and my crew learned the raw power of that pairing when one of us knocked a glass of Bodegas Tradicion Palomino Palo Cortado onto a plate of Spanish meats. A masterstroke. The nutty, lemony flavor soaked directly into thin layers of Fermin iberico and Cinco Jotas iberico, enriching both food and drink to ridiculous levels. The sledgehammer approach finally knocked some sense into me. “If I have to give sherry away to make people understand it goes with the food, I’ll do that,” says Liz Mendez, a partner with her husband, chef Mark Mendez.
That shouldn’t be necessary. People have discovered Vera—the 58-seat Spanish hub named for Mark’s grandmother—and its Euro-heavy wine list full of adventurous value-fixated selections. The lifelong dream of the Mendezes (veterans of Carnivale), Vera, like Bar Toma, qualifies as the right restaurant at the right time, and—under the el a few blocks from the Randolph Street circus—it’s close to being in the right place.
The storefront feels much warmer than when it housed Rushmore: Earth tones and Edison lights sift a golden glow onto diners. I can think of worse places to be than at the walnut-topped cheese bar/“action station,” watching the pleasant gentleman painstakingly slice a supine pig while I swish an amontillado around and nosh on Hooligan, a cow’s milk cheese ingeniously paired with Madeira-soaked raisins.
Mark Mendez’s menu is not a love letter to Spain. It’s a marriage proposal. Punchy dishes, like anchovies with pickled garlic and red pepper flakes and marjoram-dusted roasted mushrooms with puréed ’shroom sauce, bottle España’s big flavors in a way few in Chicago have. A stunning paella is alternately crisp and toothy, stocked with tender rabbit and duck and bursting with spicy vinegar from pickled jalapeño and Fresno chilies. Mendez even coaxes juice out of tapas standbys like papas bravas (crunchy and creamy) and grilled octopus with grainy pimentón sauce (soft, smoky). “They’re small plates, but my small may not be somebody else’s small,” he says.
The best example of the largess is a $3 chicken liver with baffling proportions. Two little caramelized-onion toast points sag under an obscene amount of impeccable liver, like a weightlifter with a sculpted torso and grandfather legs.
Which brings me to the Vera bread conundrum. People are bound to protest the lack of free bread, like they did at Girl & the Goat, and The Bristol before that—and this time we’re talking about Spain, where soaking up sauces with bread is a national sport. “Bread costs more than people realize,” says Mark Mendez. “For a small place like Vera to survive, I have to be careful with my costs.”
That’s the only acceptable answer. If it means that I can still get a gluttonous portion of chicken liver for $3, then I’ll do without bread. Or I’ll just pay the $6 for the delicious sourdough served with three outstanding butters—garlic, duck crackling, and goat—to help keep restaurants like Vera in business. The bread just so happens to be wonderful too.
Photograph: Anna Knott